Senate leaders said Tuesday that ricin discovered in a congressional office building had led to no illnesses so far, and demonstrated that security procedures put in place after the 2001 anthrax attacks were working.
Between 40 and 50 U.S. Capitol police and Senate employees underwent decontamination after the powder was discovered in the mailroom of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office, according to Senate aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But so far no one has turned up ill. That reassures officials.
"I'm happy to report everybody is doing fine, and that is very positive news," Frist, a surgeon before entering the Senate, said. Referring to the "pathophysiology" of ricin, Frist said symptoms usually appears within eight hours.
A Capitol physician said there was no evidence any employees exposed to enough ricin to make them sick.
Frist said the substance tested Tuesday as an "active" form of the deadly poison ricin.
But definitive test results were not expected until later in the day. Charles Dasey, a spokesman at Fort Detrick, Md., said scientists there were doing a "confirmatory" test on the substance. The test is "higher reliability" but will take longer, he said.
While three Senate office buildings were closed and lawmakers were advised not to open mail, the Senate was in session Tuesday.
Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said they were still investigating how the powder got into the mailroom. He said the probe was a criminal investigation being run in conjunction with the FBI and join terrorism task force.
Frist gave no indication that extra security had been ordered for the Capitol complex, although security in the area has been high since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota was majority leader in 2001 when deadly anthrax was found in letters sent to his and Sen. Patrick Leahy's offices in the Hart Senate Office Building.
"Processes are working very well," Frist said. "We've come a long way since anthrax."
"We are very pleased that we have far more infrastructure in place," Daschle said.
President Bush was briefed on the situation, and the administration established an interagency team to investigate the incident.
In Connecticut, meanwhile, a postal worker found an unidentified powder leaking out of an envelope addressed to the Republican National Committee, and inspectors were trying to identify it. The powder was found late Monday at the Wallingford postal sorting center, the same facility where anthrax spores were found in 2001.
Nobody was taken to the hospital and the facility remained open Tuesday morning, police said.
A clue to ricin poisoning is a suddenly developed fever, cough and excess fluid in the lungs, a fact sheet from the CDC says. These symptoms could be followed by severe breathing problems and possibly death with two or three days. There is no known antidote.
Twice as deadly as cobra venom, ricin, which is derived from the castor bean plant, is relatively easily made and can be inhaled, ingested or injected.
People exposed to ricin can protect themselves in two ways — leaving the area to breathe fresh air and getting rid of any of the toxin that might be on the skin.
Emergency workers brought a tent into the first floor of the Dirksen Senate Office building late Monday night, more than four hours after staffers first were quarantined, said one Senate aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
People deemed exposed took off all their clothing, which was sealed inside plastic bags to protect against spread of any toxin possibly on the material. The staffers hosed themselves off with warm water inside the tented shower and donned thin white jumpsuits before they were taken to a neighboring building for police questioning and finally sent home, the aide said.
"It's a real inconvenience," Frist said.
CDC recommended that anyone who could have come in contact with the poison and who experiences respiratory or intestinal problems within 12 hours of exposure go to a doctor.
Last January, the FBI told police to beware of possible attacks using ricin, a toxic substance derived from the castor bean plant. That warning followed the arrests in 2002 in Britain of 11 North African men on terrorism charges stemming from an alleged attempt to develop a ricin weapon.
In October, a package containing ricin was found at a postal facility serving Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina. There were no illnesses and no arrests.
A letter inside the Greenville package said the author could make much more ricin and will "start dumping" large quantities of the poison if new federal trucking rules went in effect. The rules, which require more rest hours for truck drivers, took effect last month.
The 2001 anthrax spree, in which letters were also sent to NBC and two newspapers, killed five people and sickened 17 others. There have been no arrests in that case.